Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Occupy Movement and Worldwide Protest

It is just as wrong to believe the American Occupy movement is leading the worldwide protest, as it is to see it as a mirror image of the protests occurring worldwide, both in terms of its origins and aspirations.

Europeans may have adopted the slogan ‘we are the 99%’, but for them this is merely the up-dated handle of a two-hundred year revolutionary history. The saga that began in a privately-owned square in lower Manhattan on September 17th, 2011, was not organized by unions or other established move-ments or political parties.  It was inspired by first-hand reports of the Arab Spring as well as of the encampments of the Spanish Indignados , victims of the European financial crisisAlthough there are hundreds - even thousands - of ad hoc activist groups in the United States, only a few individuals, mostly academics, are in touch with foreign movements or organizations. In fact, ‘Occupy’ was the result of a dare launched by a brash anti-Madison Avenue magazine called ‘Adbusters’, published in Canada, with a 250,000 circulation.

Straight from Adbusters’ ‘About’ page:

We are a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist network of the information age. Our aim is to topple the existing power structure and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century.

Adbusters is an ecological magazine, dedicated to examining the relationship between human beings and their physical and mental environment. We want a world in which the economy and ecology resonate in balance.

On July 13th Adbusters sent out a call: “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?” and that idiosyncratic message set in motion what followed.

A collectively written book entitled ‘Occupy Wall Street’, recently published by OR Books, traces the entire evolution of a phenomenon that continues to grow outside the tradition of both European social movements and Arab liberation movements.

A detailed description of the encampment in a privately-owned park a few blocks from the U.S. Stock Exchange, reveals the existence of two philosophically separate areas, one where reformists set  up their tents, and the other where more radical participants organized communal sleeping quarters.  The reformists appear to have constituted the main participants in the daily General Assemblies that became the hallmark of the movement, but facilitators (as opposed to ‘leaders’) quickly evolved working groups for every aspect of daily life. During its two-month existence, librarians, medics, artists, cooks, security kept the encampment running, while others planned actions, handled communications and outreach.  Tourists came to admire the phenomenon, and thanks to the ubiquitous availability of the internet, sympathizers from around the world phoned in orders for food to be delivered from nearby restaurants.  Lawyers volunteered to be on call when people were arrested for their activities: activists inked their telephone numbers on their arms.

The encampment lasted until November 17th, when it was violently dispersed by New York Police at the order of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  But not before it had organized resistance to foreclosures in the lower middle class borough of Brooklyn, across the East River, and staked out an indoor meeting place in the atrium of a skyscraper at 60, Wall St.

In this massive, elegant, brightly lit space with waterfalls and palm trees, bankers and traders of the neighborhood come for a quiet sandwich, while homeless take refuge from the street, just sitting or perhaps playing chess - not a surprising Manhattan scene.  Occupy working groups hold meetings there, in full sight and sound of the other users of the space.

As with this out of the ordinary meeting place, what has probably gone unreported outside the U.S. (where the phenomenon itself has only been consistently reported in the blogosphere!) is the vast number of protests that were organized across New York.  The City University of New York alone counts 480,000 (four hundred and eighty thousand) students, and there are in addition about one hundred private colleges and universities in the city, including Columbia.  Students, young workers and the unemployed with time to spare make up the major portion of Occupy activists, and this is what distinguishes the phenomenon from the myriad of anti-war, pro-reform, groups that have persisted since resistance to the war in Vietnam and the nationwide civil rights movement.  These have been kept alive by members of the ‘old left’, who are gradually dying out, participation by anyone under fifty a rarity. Through a medium uniquely familiar to them, the Occupy Movement re-activated American youth. They have been joined and supported by the ‘old Left’,  and  include every segment of that population:  radical women, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, LGBTs and any other minority you can think of.

For two months, Zucotti Park renamed Liberty Plaza, was a unique venue for artists, and tourists flocked to the oblong space as much for its festive atmosphere as to witness the now ubiquitous ‘mic check’. This unique communication tool came into being when the mayor banned microphones, speakers and even battery-powered bullhorns from the encampment, promising thirty days in jail to violators. To overcome this impediment, the participants in a rally or meeting repeat, phrase by phrase, what a speaker says, until those farthest away have heard the phrase.  Speaking in unison builds a powerful sense of togetherness, which more than made up for the slowness of proceedings.

In Philadelphia, where I live, the Occupiers, camped on an enormous plaza in front of City Hall, welcomed the homeless, who often suffer from addiction, and tried to help them. When they realized the problem could not be solved in an encampment, they leaned on city authorities to become more active.  Following a two-week notice by the mayor, the camp was evicted on December 6th, with the participation of mounted police.   It has since repaired to various indoor locations, mainly a neighboring Quaker Meeting House and a Methodist church.  (American Churches are where most anti-war and other progressive groups have been welcome, in a tradition that goes back to the Underground Railroad and reached its zenith with the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King.)

Through daily actions and meetings, OccupyPhilly.org actively creates community, while exploring the modalities through which community can effect change.  From deep breathing to the incredibly quiet atmosphere of more than a hundred people weighing in on both process and content through hand signals, the Occupiers debate issues of non-violence vs violence, elections vs. alternative solutions, and the best way to join forces with other groups.

Which is a nice segway to  the crucial difference between the Occupiers and the 99%ers in the rest of the world: Occupy brings together ‘people of faith’ or ‘belonging to faith-based traditions’, Anarchists, Democrats (especially Black Democrats) who hope that somehow Obama will get it together in a second term, libertarians (who make it easy for some to claim/wish that in reality the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers have a lot in common), ‘faint-hearted’ liberals and those who think social democracy would be a good thing.

Almost since the beginning, the media has been asking: “What do they want?  What’s their program?” Journalists are aware that around the world the 99% have very definite ideas about what they want, but they never reveal what those ideas are, because they’re usually farther left than social democracy. Even ‘The Swedish model is only mentioned in the American press when it runs into a snag, implying that our 99%ers are not missing anything. No matter the evidence, ‘liberal democracy’, which gives each citizen a vote, is touted, in the oft-quoted phrase of Winston Churchill, as ‘the worst system with the exception of all others’. If people want the financial system to be regulated, that’s up to the Congress that results from the one man one vote system, and if there are lobbyists, why that’s part of free speech, even if the idea would make Churchill turn over in his grave.

It’s important for the worldwide 99% to know that the Occupy Movement is coming from a long history of declining trade-union membership and effective-ness. In the early fifties, as the Cold War ramped up, Senator Joseph McCarthy held months of infamous hearings for the purpose of identifying Communists in and out of government, and its legacy has been a total lack of American ideological literacy even among most activists.  It appears that the majority of Occupy participants continue to assume that system reform represents the best hope for a better America, as it fights desperately to maintain an Empire fast slipping from its grasp.

However during the course of the winter, the dichotomy represented by the two areas of encampment at Liberty Park has given rise to a separate group calling for world-wide revolution http://occupywallst.org/.  According to its website: “OccupyWallSt.org is the unofficial de facto online resource for the growing occupation movement happening on Wall Street and around the world. We're an affinity group committed to doing technical support work for resistance movements. We're not a subcommittee of the NYCGA (New York City general Assembly) nor affiliated with Adbusters, anonymous or any other organization.”

Ideology is slowly coming to the fore, and I discover that Philadelphia has a long Anarchist tradition.  I ponder whether that is why the space for Marxism and its offshoots has remained empty here in my home town where there is so much Brotherly Love.



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